11 March 2014

The Ears of Your Skin


That's what we in the biz say when we're talking about your body's ability to know precisely where it is in space.  It's what allows you to close your eyes and touch your finger to your nose . . . or to clasp a necklace behind your head . . . and to walk on sand without spraining every joint in your body.

You see, throughout the human body, there are these little receptors . . . they gage pressure and position and then send nano fast messages to the necessary muscles which will manipulate the involved joints in order for the body to respond appropriately.

Yesterday, we had one of our frequent flyers come back to see us because he's got secondary issues as a result of an old heel fracture and bad ankle sprain.  Apart from some stiffness and weakness, his main problem was that he still hasn't regained his proprioceptive sense . . . but in order for him to buy into the exercises, he'd have to first understand why they were necessary . . . which meant I'd have to explain it to him . . . in . . . Hausa.

'We want you do this one work,' I started, 'because it make eye of the foot having more strength.'  (side note: the 'eye of the foot' is the Hausa way of saying 'ankle')

He looked sideways at me.  I mean, really, what wasn't clear about that?!?!

I tried again.  'We give you this one work so that eye of the foot work easier later.  Walking better later.  Maybe the week that owns coming, maybe walking not give suffering.'

'Déborah,' he said to me, shaking his head, 'You don't speak Hausa!'

Wanting to give up, I decided to try one more time.

'In the skin of you, there are small small ears.  They hear the movement of the body of you.  At the time that you move the body of you, they listen and they give the movement of goodness.  At the time that you walk on top of the small small rocks, they not give you falling.  They not give you pain.  These ears of the skin of you give walking of easiness on top of the small small rocks.'

'OH!' he said as the light bulb switched on.  'If I can do these exercises they will help my feet to hear the ground and my ankle will move better so that I can walk more naturally!'

He left the gym enthused by his new found hope that he would be able to work without such a high risk of new injury.  And I marveled that my ridiculously broken explanation actually worked!

I got to thinking about this today . . . about the ears of the skin which hear the movement of the body . . . but not in terms of the physical context.  Rather, in terms of living and working cross culturally.

I was sitting in a meeting with three Nigeriens . . . two other women and one man.  The man is a hospital administrator and the women are pretty low-level employees . . . I'm somewhere in the middle.  Two are married (not to each other) with children, while the second woman is engaged to be married (eventually), and I'm on my own.  He is in charge of the whole big event this weekend . . . the official opening of our new Maternity Ward.  I'm in charge of making sure the meal for the honored guests gets pulled off and we don't go over our food budget.  The women are cooking and planning and making sure we don't make too many cultural faux-pas.

Swirling around me was a storm of power-distance, high and low context confusion, and the furry of three languages.  At times I wasn't fully sure we had arrived at a decision . . . let alone how we got there!

The only thing I was confident about was that I had no idea what was going on.

As I tried to understand who was saying 'no' by saying 'yes' . . . and who was saying 'no' without saying 'no' . . . and who was supportive of which opinions . . . and what body language and eye contact actually mean . . . and if I had managed to completely offend and insult someone simply by opening my mouth . . . I began to ponder the deep value of 'cultural proprioception'.

The ability to bend and sway, push and pull, press down or ease up in a second culture.  To know where I am at all times on the cultural spectrum . . . waltzing in step to foreign music, without a dancing partner.

I live my life at the fulcrum of a seesaw . . . balancing through the give-and-take of a culture that is not my own, hoping that somehow the ears of my American skin will finally begin to hear the movement of the Hausa body.


mamastouff said...

That was very clear...I think. It reminds me of talking to a preschooler at times...hearing what they are not saying to understand what they are saying. I do believe your understanding is much more critical than mine! Praying that your American skin can better hear the Hausa body.

Matt said...

I love your reflections on cultural awareness (as well as your thoughts on this patient who you not only empathized but also identified with). My mind is swirling as I think through it all - great stuff to work through. Thanks heaps!

Craig F said...

"They give the movement of goodness." I love phrase.